Much more than a 6-foot rabbit is invisible at the new revival of "Harvey" on Broadway. So is any real reason to see it.
A recent preview of The Roundabout Theatre Company's dull production starring Jim Parsons triggered plenty of yawning in the audience and revealed cracks in a play that's supposed to celebrate American individualism and lampoon social conformity. It opened Thursday at Studio 54.
At "Harvey," there is overacting and under-acting, poor sound quality and endless windups for lame payoff jokes. And it is led by an actor who seems to be completely shorn of any charisma. Parsons, who plays a hard-core physicist nerd on "The Big Bang Theory," has merely transferred his pursed-mouth, vaguely creepy and unsocialized TV character to the stage. With no laugh track. For two hours.
Parsons steps into the big shoes of Jimmy Stewart to play Elwood P. Dawd, a far-too-pleasant man who has been left some money, spends it on booze and is accompanied by a tall white rabbit, an invisible creature only he sees called Harvey.
Elwood's embarrassing eccentricity is messing up his sister Veta's attempt at furious social climbing. She schemes to get him committed, gets committed herself and that's when the mistaken-identity farce begins. The big question is: Who is really crazy? The better question is: Who really cares?
Mary Chase's play is six decades old and creaks. It's hard to imagine how it beat Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" for the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Clearly, the concept of two best friends that are not of the same species owes Chase a debt and there are quite a few lately – like the TV show "Wilfred" with Elijah Wood and the talking teddy bear in Mark Wahlberg's new movie "Ted," both showing that a true animal best friend is really that person's unfiltered id.
But, in other ways, Chase's play is stuck in 1944, especially when it comes to how society looks at committing the mentally unwell. The romantic notion of simply opening the doors of the nation's sanitariums is past.
As for the cast, "Harvey" director Scott Ellis hasn't really gotten much gelling done. Larry Bryggman is great but somewhat wasted as Judge Omar Gaffney. Charles Kimbrough is perfectly cast as the blustery sanitarium owner, William R. Chumley. And Carol Kane achieves a luminous form of loopy grace in a tiny role as Chumley's wife.
But Jessica Hecht as Elwood's sister and Tracee Chimo as her daughter are shrill and irritating – especially the strange sexed-up fondling of herself by Hecht after being manhandled and dunked in a tub in the mental hospital, which pretty much never awakens people's libido.
Three sanitarium employees – Morgan Spector, Holley Fain and Rich Sommer – are good enough to have their own spin-off show, what with all the bickering and misunderstandings. They're in another play, it seems. David Rockwell's two sets – an elegant mansion's library with rich colors and well-appointed furniture versus the all-white, sanitized sanitarium – nicely contrast the two worlds.
So much of this play rests on the shoulders of Elwood, and Parson's aren't broad enough. While he has flickers of likability, such as lighting up when he meets new people or brilliantly defanging a bully with just words, he's often just an odd duck, to mix metaphors. He also makes the cardinal sin of not letting the audience really see Harvey with his halfhearted miming.
Parsons showed some gift for the stage in the recent Broadway revival of "The Normal Heart," allowing a wry urgency to appear in his role of an anti-AIDS activist. Here, it's just more Sheldon Cooper, if Sheldon Cooper was an alcoholic with a poor grasp of reality.
"Harvey" will make you see things, indeed. The closest exit.
If you’re mad for Jim Parsons as the brainy oddball Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory,” odds are you’ll be just as crazy about his Broadway star turn in “Harvey.”
In it, he plays Elwood P. Dowd, a lovable kook whose best friend and drinking buddy is the invisible 6-foot-tall rabbit that Mary Chase named her 1944 comedy after.
Parsons, seen last year on stage in a small role in “The Normal Heart,” pours on potent nice-guy charm and steers clear of any irony, and the results are win-win. He grounds the play as he elevates it.
Good thing, since, seven decades later, Chase’s work is a hoary Hasenpfeffer. It limps as often as it hippity-hops. The author also has a nagging way of raising subplots, including an interoffice romance, then abandoning them.
Director Scott Ellis’ staging is a mixed stew, too. The Dowd family accents are oddly all over the map and a key role is cranked up too high too early.
Parsons wisely keeps it lovably low-key as Elwood, a trust-fund baby and full-time barfly who was famously portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. When Elwood is around — and, happily, that’s often — things click.
The big question is whether Harvey is imaginary or real. The playwright drops clues on either side and leaves it up to you. How people respond to Elwood’s kink is what really matters.
His uptight, social-minded sister Veta (an initially overamped Jessica Hecht) and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo), are embarrassed. They conspire to have Elwood locked up in Chumley’s Rest, the spalike name of the Denver booby hatch run by Dr. William Chumley (Charles Kimbrough, nicely daffy).
Out of sight, they’ll have Elwood’s home and money. But the scheme backfires. In keeping with Elwood’s easygoing, nonjudgmental ways, Chase doesn’t punish her characters. Instead of just deserts, devious Myrtle gets a potential boyfriend in a nuthouse lackey played by Rich Sommer (“Mad Men”).
Lending reliable support in small roles are Carol Kane and Larry Bryggman, and, typical for Roundabout, the production looks swell. Credit David Rockwell’s shape-shifting set, Jane Greenwood’s chic period costumes and Kenneth Posner’s dappled lighting.
As a gentle ode to acceptance and nonconformity, “Harvey” is enjoyable — no more, no less.
It’s worth noting that Chase’s play won the Pulitzer over Tennessee Williams’ enduringly powerful “The Glass Menagerie.”
Now that’s cuckoo.
Few things on Broadway are as old-fashioned as “Harvey.” And it’s not just because Mary Chase’s play is from 1944 — plenty of older works have more edge than this butter knife of a show.
What makes “Harvey” so uncool is that this tale of a man and his invisible giant rabbit is defiantly, almost aggressively wholesome and gentle. That alone makes it distinctive and, ultimately, likable — a show appropriate for the entire family, from kids to grandparents.
Of course, it’s unlikely that this wrinkly chestnut, immortalized by the 1950 movie with James Stewart, would have returned to Broadway without a star. The Roundabout revival that opened last night has one in Jim Parsons, the Emmy-winning lead of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” who turns out to be the perfect choice for Elwood P. Dowd.
The role is a tricky one: We have to empathize with a guy who may be totally nuts — or alcoholic, or both.
Nobody else can see Elwood’s long-eared best friend, Harvey, but that doesn’t stop our hero from talking to him, or saving him a place at the table. Parsons’ deft touch with physical comedy is put to good use, and his open, guileless face inspires instant trust. His Elwood is sweet without being goopy.
Elwood’s quirks don’t sit well with his sister, the very proper Veta (Jessica Hecht), and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo). Obsessed with keeping up appearances, the women are ashamed to be related to “the biggest screwball in town.” (The slightly unsettling movie is more obvious about Elwood being a lush, a side that’s toned down here.)
The only solution Veta sees is to commit her brother to a sanitarium — read, loony bin — run by the irascible Dr. Chumley (Charles Kimbrough). Easygoing as ever, Elwood agrees, but thankfully for him, the scheme hits a snag.
Throughout, Elwood is aware of what others see as his problem: “I wrestled with reality most of my life,” he says, “and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.”
Yet there are also sweet hints that Harvey may indeed exist.
This whimsy could be hopelessly corny, but the production handles it lightly. Director Scott Ellis does a good job of contrasting Elwood’s unflappable calm and kindness with the agitation and stressed-out selfishness of those around him. The excellent supporting cast shines here, especially the comically uptight Hecht and the increasingly unsettled Kimbrough. Carol Kane has an offbeat turn as Dr. Chumley’s wife, playing her like a child in a Tim Burton film.
The most striking aspect of the play is that its tolerant message feels almost provocative at a time when the answer to every deviation from the norm is medication.
“Harvey” pleads for simple decency and the acceptance of harmless eccentricity. By the end, you too may want to see that rabbit.
During the heyday of Studio 54 it was probably not unusual for patrons to see visions of strange beasts roaming the dance floor. And didn’t Bianca Jagger once make an appearance on a white horse?
Now that the space is again a legitimate theater, such hallucinatory experiences are no doubt much rarer. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some patrons exiting Studio 54 after seeing the new Broadway revival of “Harvey” are getting into arguments over taxis with a six-foot-tall white rabbit.
Sorry, Harvey! Make that a 6-foot-3 ½-inch-tall white rabbit.
Such is the charm of the director Scott Ellis’s production of this 1944 chestnut, led by a supremely winning Jim Parsons as the gentle protagonist, Elwood P. Dowd, that you may find yourself wistfully scanning the departing crowds for a glimpse of Elwood’s boon companion, that big, furry critter who spreads both exasperation and enchantment among all who encounter him.
Mary Chase’s play is by no means a work of great profundity. The Pulitzer Prize committee may have never erred more egregiously than it did in favoring “Harvey” over Tennessee Williams’s first masterwork, “The Glass Menagerie.” But handled with care, as it has been in this Roundabout Theater Company production, this winsome comedy about a lovable eccentric can cast a satisfying spell.
Mr. Ellis’s amiable staging — which features expert supporting performances from Jessica Hecht, as Elwood’s dithery sister, Veta, and Charles Kimbrough, as the eminent psychiatrist she hopes will lock her troublesome brother up for good — strikes the right, gently dizzy tone. Most important, Mr. Parsons carries the weight of a role immortalized on film by the inimitable James Stewart as lightly as Elwood does the hat and coat he keeps on hand for his furry companion. The breakout star of the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” the soft-spoken Mr. Parsons makes an ideal Elwood, the drinker and dreamer who passes his days in the company of Harvey, doing little more than sitting around saloons making friendly conversation with whoever happens by. Mr. Parsons possesses in abundance the crucial ability to project an ageless innocence without any visible effort: no small achievement for an actor in these knowing times.
With his honeyed drawl, elfin features and sweet, sidelong grin, Mr. Parsons’s Elwood is a man who has managed to pickle the literal-mindedness of a young boy in the booze he consumes in stevedore-worthy quantities, without imbibing a single drop of bitters. (The play’s indulgent attitude to Elwood’s affection for alcohol strikes a radical note today; a similar character in a contemporary play would be depicted as pathological.)
Mr. Parsons is never funnier than when Elwood is treating everyone he encounters as a potential friend. When a taxi driver greets his invitation to dinner with a perfunctory “sure, be glad to,” Elwood replies with amiable urgency, “When — when would you be glad to?” Elwood means every word he says, and he never says an unkind word.
The literal-mindedness is of course meant as a commentary on the little hypocrisies that lubricate social intercourse but also impede true connection; Elwood’s invention of an imaginary nonhuman companion is a comment on the general failings of common humanity.
When one of the head doctors grills him about how his furry friend came to be called Harvey, Elwood denies that he ever knew another soul by that name. “Maybe that’s why I always had such hopes for it,” he matter-of-factly replies.
“Harvey” prefigures the wave of countercultural movies in the 1960s that would turn truth-telling kooks into an overused conceit, but Chase got there first, and she doesn’t push the philosophizing down our throats. And Mr. Parsons’s deft, light-fingered performance makes the saintliness go down easy; there is real charm in Elwood’s little morsels of homespun wisdom when they are batted across the footlights with such guileless simplicity.
Ms. Hecht displays unexpected gifts for physical comedy as Veta, who loves her brother but is becoming unhinged under the pressure of masking his eccentricities from the disapproving world. When Veta hisses to Dr. Sanderson (Morgan Spector), who is in charge of admissions at the psychiatric home, that she herself has occasionally caught a glimpse of Harvey, the confusion that follows — she is mistaken for the patient, and Elwood is sent on his merry way — seems entirely plausible.
Equally delightful is Mr. Kimbrough as the stuffy Dr. Chumley, chief psychiatrist of the home, who returns from a boozy afternoon in the company of Elwood and Harvey with his mind so addled he staggers into his office like a zombie and demands that the burly attendant who keeps the patients in line (an amusingly brutish Rich Sommer, of “Mad Men”) not leave him alone for an instant.
Larry Bryggman expertly fills the role of Judge Gaffney, who is called in by Veta to support Elwood’s confinement. Tracee Chimo exudes perky man-hungriness as Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae, and Carol Kane, as Chumley’s wife, and Angela Paton, as Elwood’s doting aunt, make the most of their single scenes. Written in three acts and here performed in a reasonably brisk two, “Harvey” definitely has some saggy patches. The subplot about the antagonistic flirtation between Dr. Sanderson and his comely nurse, Ruth Kelly (Holley Fain), definitely gums up the comic works.
But the play regains its firm footing whenever Mr. Parsons’s Elwood is onstage, spreading infectious good cheer amid the chaos he and Harvey leave in their wake. I can’t say I spotted any big white rabbits on my way home from the theater, but I did find myself reflecting that if we could all conjure imaginary companions to help us emulate Elwood’s even temper amid the addling irritations of daily life, the pharmaceutical industry would be in some serious trouble.
The season is dead. Long live the season. Now that Broadway has said goodbye to 2011-12 with Sunday's Tonys, next year has officially begun with "Harvey" -- a charming, altogether unimportant but pretty adorable revival of Mary Chase's 1944 Pulitzer-winner about a man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit.
If the term summer stock were not so besmirched with straw hats and desperation, the Roundabout's production, starring the sweetly formidable Jim Parsons, could be thought of as Broadway's excellent summer vacation. Parsons, in a small but significant stretch from the haute-geek he plays on TV's "The Big Bang Theory," does not shirk from creating an Elwood P. Dowd who stands tall yet somehow separate from the long, bright shadow cast by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 movie.
Director Scott Ellis has surrounded Parsons with an appropriately fine assortment of character actors to play dithering dowagers, dotty psychiatrists and incredulous family members inconvenienced by having a relative talking to a 6-foot-31 / 2-inch invisible white rabbit named Harvey. Especially impressive is Jessica Hecht, much admired in drama, turning into a multileveled, delightfully goofy comic as Elwood's impatient, financially dependent cousin. Watch how her smiles suggest she might cry, while her weeping seems in conflict with her happy face.
Parsons, who showed his serious depth last season in "The Normal Heart," plays Elwood with lovely, benign obliviousness, the curl of a crooked smile and a way of squinting eye contact that particularly connects with women. He has a formal yet intimate relationship with his invisible friend, a mannerly chivalry that extends to lonely strangers, pub mates and loved ones trying to get him committed and take his money.
David Rockwell's handsome set, with its tumultuous painted sky, whisks us on turntables between Elwood's Victorian mansion and the Wedgwood-green sanitarium, while Jane Greenwood's keenly observed costumes are both posh and foolish. Charles Kimbrough, Carol Kane and Larry Bryggman show off a bushel of comic tics as people who believe themselves to be grown-ups. As Chase explains, Harvey -- a Celtic figure of mythology called a pooka -- is "fond of rumpots and crackpots," and this old chestnut is very pleasantly populated with both.
Comedy can be deadly. Just a few directorial misjudgments and uh-oh, sudden death: forced laughs, desperate thesps, and an aud growing surlier by the minute. Something like that has befallen the Roundabout's revival of "Harvey," Mary Chase's 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a lovable man (memorably played by James Stewart in the 1951 movie) whose best friend is a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. Jim Parsons aims to charm the pants off us by giving Elwood P. Dowd an air of sweet serenity. But the vacancy behind his bland facial expressions has a chilling effect.
Roundabout always likes to look good, so the design of Scott Ellis' production is impeccable -- just as good as, and maybe better than, the period authenticity he achieved in the revival of "Twelve Angry Men."
David Rockwell's set of the book-lined drawing room of an elegant Victorian mansion conveys exactly the sense of financial security and social solidity you'd expect to find in the home of a well-off family living in Denver, Colo., in 1944. And while Jane Greenwood's costumes are visually witty (what hats!), the detail work gives them validity.
Contemporary attention spans being what they are, it's hard to fault the production for the feeling that the play's first scene goes on forever. But exposition wasn't a dirty word back in the playwright's more leisurely day, and we really need to know that Elwood (Jim Parsons), his late mother's sole heir and the master of this grand house, is "the biggest screwball in town."
Elwood's best friend is an imaginary rabbit named Harvey, and his insistence on introducing his "friend" to everyone in town has made social pariahs of his social-climbing sister, Veta (Jessica Hecht, not bad but biding her time until her triumphant turn in the second act), and Veta's nasty daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo, so good in "Bachelorette" but way, way over the top here).
The first scene, set in the sanitarium where Veta goes to have Elwood committed, also gets off to a slow start, lumbered by more drawn-out exposition and a stiff perf from Morgan Spector as the stuffy psychiatrist who admits them. But the farce finally kicks in when Veta goes to pieces trying to explain the strain she's been under (a brilliant breakdown from Hecht) and is locked up as a loony. Parsons also makes good in this scene by executing some deft comic maneuvers after Elwood is set loose and allowed to roam the sanitarium with Harvey.
The nuttier the farce becomes, in fact, the better this show is.
Charles Kimbrough is insanely funny as the head of the psychiatric clinic who goes chasing after his runaway ward and is won over by Harvey. As the doctor's downhearted wife, Carol Kane steals the scene in which Elwood charms her with his kindness and beautiful manners. And Angela Paton brightens the first act as a wealthy society matron who does a classic double-take when Elwood introduces her to his imaginary friend.
Wherever they happened to have wandered in terms of performance styles, the company pulls itself together in the final scene, when scribe Chase quits being facetious and makes her serious point that "perfectly normal human beings" are, in fact, nasty people -- and that however eccentric Elwood may seem to the "normal" people in the world, he's a lot happier than they are.
Cue the audience cheers.